It is sobering data.
The 2013 Vikings Defense surrendered 480 points, only four points less than their all-time worst in the fifty-three previous seasons. Last season's defensive league rankings include: 32nd in points allowed; 31st in yards allowed; 31st in plays allowed; 27th in turnovers; 30th in first downs allowed; 32nd in first downs allowed via the pass; 30th in third down conversion percentage; 30th in opponent possession time allowed. The 2013 Minnesota Vikings allowed 37 touchdowns through the air, more than two per game.
Purple-People Eaters? More like an Unlimited, No-Charge, Purple Buffet.
And there's more....
Offensively, the Vikings played Quarterback Roulette. Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel for the majority, but a surprise appearance by Josh Freeman on national television that seemed to seal the end of the Leslie Frazier era. Minnesota finished with more interceptions than passing touchdowns, a rare feat. Ponder's quarterback rating was a dismal 77.9, which was only a few points behind Cassel's at 81.6. For perspective, Freeman earned a 40.6 in his one performance. Divisional rivals fared better. Aaron Rodgers finished with 104.9, Jay Cutler 89.2, and Matthew Stafford 84.2. Which explains why only Green Bay finished with a winning record (8-7-1).
Minnesota had the ninth-ranked rushing offense, which would give fans some hope all is not lost offensively. But when one considers the Vikings have the best running back in football, it is disappointing to be ranked the 13th overall offense in the league.
So we should be content with improvement, right?
(In Fargo voice) Nah. I think w'ill win it now.
Fans across the NFC North are hopeful. Every team thinks it is their year this year. They could be right. Three games separated first from last in the NFC North standings in 2013.
None are more optimistic than in Minnesota. The changes that occurred were fan favorites. Fans pointed to Ponder for much of the 2013 woes, and the organization responded with moving up to draft Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater late in the first round. It should come as no coincidence that Teddy's touchdown to interception ratio last year was 31:4. An NFL team with a -12 turnover ratio is well aware.
That was not all for the offense. The line gets a boost from draftee David Yankey, a guard from Stanford, and un-drafted free agent Antonio "Tiny" Richardson from Tennessee. Running back Toby Gerhart's replacement appears to be third- round pick Jerrick McKinnon from Georgia Southern. He may start behind Matt Asiata on the depth chart, but his incredible feats at the NFL Combine suggest he will work his way into playing time.
The team also began to address the concerns on defense at the NFL draft. Linebacker Anthony Barr from UCLA was highly coveted for his incredible athleticism. He will almost certainly start from day one. Oregon State's Scott Chrichton will help fill a void at defensive end left by the departing of Jared Allen. Defensive backs taken late have a chance to not only make the roster, but supplant starters. Many are already singing the praises of seventh round pick Jabari Price from North Carolina.
Further, the organization made key off-season moves to address their defensive woes. Minnesota hired a new coach in Mike Zimmer, a long-time Defensive Coordinator (Dallas, Atlanta, Buffalo) with steady success in improving defenses. Zimmer becomes the tenth new coach of the Vikings, the ninth overall (Bud Grant returned in 1985). Zimmer is highly regarded throughout the NFL and often previously labeled as 'most deserving a head coaching position'. Zimmer has brought a talented coaching staff, highlighted by offensive guru Norv Turner.
Sadly, the combined record for first-year coaches in Minnesota is 43-78-3, with one playoff visit by Denny Green in 1992. Other than the 10-6 record that year, only Jerry Burns had a winning record (9-7 in 1986) in his first year. The last three new coaches (Tice, Childress, Frazier) combined first full year's record is 15-33.
Zimmer has work ahead.
Thankfully, GM Rick Spielman further addressed the defense via free agency last March, adding CB Captain Munnerlyn, DT Linval Joseph, DE Corey Wooton and others. Later, safeties Kurt Coleman and Chris Crocker came aboard.. as if defensive backs everywhere realized there might be a lot of job postings in Mankato.
And so we head into the 2014 preseason full of hope once again. This proud franchise has had only sixteen losing seasons in its fifty-three years. Leslie Frazier's 21-32-1, the .396 winning percentage, second worst in Viking history, is now a memory.
There will be plenty of preseason to debate which quarterback, which defensive backs, offensive guard or wide receivers (my money is on local boy Adam Thielen) should help superstars Adrian Pederson and Cordarrelle Patterson move the offense. The preseason starts on Friday with the Oakland Raiders. Both Bridgewater and Cassel will get first team opportunities. Let the debating begin.
One thing is certain, Viking fans are looking for an immediate return to the playoffs.
It's easy to hate the Eagles. Their fans most-famous for throwing snowballs at Santa Claus. The team that houses PETA most-despised Michael Vick. They play in the media-bloated NFC East. Philadelphia knocked Minnesota out of the playoffs in 2004 and 2008, the latter a home loss.
And then came the movie Silver Linings Playbook.
It was a tremendous sports movie that in part focused on the die-hard fan. Suddenly I had a new-found respect for Philly fans. They care about their team and take their wins and losses to heart. As a die-hard Vikings fan I identified with superstitions, unwavering support, and anger toward others with less investment.
The Vikings are a community family.
At 3-9-1, one has to have unconditional love in order to support the 2013 Vikings. The defense is still on path to give up the most points per game in our fifty plus year history. The quarterback carousel has included many dismal performances by Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel. Coach Leslie Frazier keeps telling us that the team is getting better. And the 2-3-1 record in the last six games supports that compared to the overall record.
And now Adrian Peterson is injured.
Most fans are focused on our present draft position. It is fourth. However, there are five teams a mere half-game behind, at 4-9. Tampa Bay and Oakland, two of the five, have schedules that suggest they will not win again in 2013. Of the teams presently ahead of Minnesota in draft position, two (Atlanta,Washington) play each other this week. So a win by Minnesota could move the 2014 pick from a third overall selection to at least sixth or worse.
Cheer for a loss?
The reason the movie Silver Linings Playbook resonated with so many is that it rightly showed how loyalty is prized. In our anxiety-based, stressed-filled, crazy lives that we endure football has become an emotional outlet for millions. It is why we tolerate owners and players making millions while we work year round in jobs that pay much less. We fork over hundreds of dollars to attend games where you get a hot dog and beer for the cost of a family meal.
They are us.
I have no doubt the players and coaches want to win. It appears Minnesota has played hard despite all the losses.
We care too. We cheer for Audie Cole to have a chance to prove himself. We are excited with every touch by Cordarrelle Patterson. We want Adrian Peterson to run to a NFL rushing title, overcome another injury, and prove he is the best running back in football.
And so many of us want our team to win on Sunday.
It will be difficult.
The league's leading rusher is an Eagle: LeSean McCoy. He has 1,744 combined yards in thirteen games. Nick Foles, drafted 88th in 2011, has 20 TD passes to one interception. His passer rating is 120.0. Comparatively, Christian Ponder has a 77.9 rating and Matt Cassel has a 84.9. The Philly offense is ninth in scoring, third in total yards, and first overall in rushing. They have won five straight by outscoring opponents 158 to 90.
They are on fire.
But we die-hard fans look for victory. We know CB Xavier Rhodes is doubtful, CB Chris Cook questionable, and the Eagles run a spread offense featuring DeSean Jackson, who has 65 catches for over 1,000 yards. Despite the prime position present in the 2014 Draft, we loyalists want a win. We rationalize that management probably would misfire on a franchise quarterback anyway (the track record on hurlers being what it is). Top underclassmen quarterbacks are opting to stay in school. We have already lost the Teddy Bridgewater sweepstakes.
We are looking to win.
As crazy as that appears.
Green Bay was 5-2, atop the NFL North, and facing the rival Chicago Bears at home when they lost Aaron Rodgers to injury. Since then, the Pack has not won, cannot score, and find themselves out of the playoff picture for the first time in a while. The last two games, one at home, Green Bay has been outscored 54-26. 81-46 in the last three, two being at home.
Good quarterbacks make a difference.
Minnesota has not had a Rodgers-like quarterback since 2009, when Brett Favre came to Minnesota via New York. Prior to that, one could argue the last great quarterback was Fran Tarkenton. Sure, Randall Cunningham and Jeff George had big years. Daunte Culpepper too. But each of these recent quarterbacks could only produce one good year, including Favre.
The truth be told, other than Tarkenton, Minnesota has never had a great franchise thrower. And Minnesota has never won a Super Bowl.
Tark made it to three, however. The 1970s Vikings were a force that ruled the NFC for many years. A great defensive line, smart head coach, and an offense that relied on strong blockers, a talented running back, and a creative quarterback.
But times have changed.
As much as Minnesotans rue their quarterback situation, they might rejoice similarly in what has happened to the Packers. Now they know how we have felt for the last few years. Looking for positive qualities in Seneca Wallace or Scott Tolzein is a Sisyphus-like exercise. Tolzein has thrown for 619 yards in less than two games... but he has five interceptions and a QB rating in the 60s.
Today's game will feature two proud franchises without a great quarterback. The Packers have been accustomed to having one for nearly the last twenty years. Minnesota, on the other hand, has had a handful of great QB seasons in that same time frame. Only with a different quarterback each time.
This game today comes down to which team can reduce the shortcomings of their starting QB. The 5-5 Packers have surrendered 81 less points than the Vikings' defense, which is rated among the worst in the league. But it is no coincidence that Green Bay has averaged giving up 27 points a game since losing Rodgers. They were never very good, but were exposed far less when Rodgers could control the ball at will.
This is a game Minnesota can win. If Christian Ponder plays decent, the Vikings have a chance. Certainly Ponder had looked better until he completely fell apart in the latter portions of the last game in Seattle. In those moments he looked horrid. We few Ponder-hopefuls (that are left) winced with each pass. Even we now confess a new quarterback is needed.
The trouble is finding one. And keeping him healthy.
Can you feel it?
It is purple excitement and it is growing. One tries to be subtle, humble, approach the preseason with reserve.. but we cannot. We read the pundits saying we were a flash in the pan in 2012, and the 'patterns' say we will fall back down.
We don't see it.
The list of blue-chip players on this team is growing, and as a regular drinker of purple kool-aid, we are drunk with giddiness. A little concerned Greg Jennings is talking trash so early, but hey, we have his back now that he is in purple. Aaron Rodgers a pompous ass? OK, if you say so, our new favorite receiver. Week one was a glimpse at a few players fighting to make the squad, and impressive efforts by players such as Stephen Burton and John Carlson. We saw that Matt Cassel throws just a wee bit better than Joe Webb. Sure we lost, but that is not a worry week one.
This week the Vikings will play against the Buffalo Bills. Their rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel is all the rage, and Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are a very good 1-2 punch at running back. They scored 44 points in the first preseason game, albeit much of the scoring through reserves. The Bills are not an elite NFL talent, having finished 6-10 last year, but their first team is decent, and even strong at pass defense last year. Christian Ponder will face a test in the one or two quarters he is expected to play.
And that is what we can get focus on here. How will Ponder handle his new receivers? What does the addition of Jennings and Patterson do to the pass offense, but maybe equally important, opponent's run defenses? If Minnesota presents any kind of a solid passing attack, AP may have undercut himself at 2,500 yards.
I know what you are thinking. I am a gung-ho homer. The experts are not convinced. And you would be right.
This time of the year how can I be anything else?
But I am not alone...
There are many fans who feel as I do. We are trying not to talk cocky, or sound like complete homers, but we are. Most of us remember the winning ways of this franchise, the NFC Central domination, the frequent visits to the NFC Championship and/or Super Bowls. We know talent when we see it. And this team is loaded.
Tonight the Vikings play a relatively meaningless game against the Bills. The first few series on offense and defense will have merit, and fuel homers like myself to great heights should we do well. Most understand that this is not the time to judge a season, however, and these games are for coaches and scouts to evaluate talent.
Let's call it an appetizer.
This Sunday's game vs. the Packers will be big. The biggest game since the "Assault in New Orleans", or otherwise referred to as the NFC Championship in the 2009 season. If Minnesota wins, they will have gone from back-to-back losing seasons, including last year's 3-13 season to a 2012 10-6 record and a playoff berth. Unbelievable.
Still, Minnesotans refuse to embrace quarterback Christian Ponder. And for solid reasons. His passer rating lies in-between Michael Vick and Blaine Gabbert. He throws for under 100 yards. He had five fumbles lost and twelve interceptions. His decision-making is much maligned.
Yet here we are at 9-6.
Adrian Peterson is demonstrating how important a running game can be. Peterson's 126.5 rushing yards per game dwarfs the next closest runner by nearly 30 yards per game. AP's 6.0 yards per carry are second to only C.J. Spiller, and his due mostly to running against prevent defenses, as opposed to 8 or 9 in the "box". Adrian's 2012 season ranks 8th all-time for rushing yards in a season, with Earl Campbell only 36 yards away, and O.J. Simpson's 2,003 yard performance a mere 105. Peterson's season ranks 79th all-time in all purpose yards, and if he can manage to set a single-season record by rushing for 208 yards vs. Green Bay, will finish in the top 30 all-time. He is 2nd in the league in rushing TDs. 2nd in attempts. And he has only lost two fumbles.
The defense is anchored by more than just Jared Allen and Chad Greenway in 2012. Brian Robison and Everson Griffen have been impressive, combining for 12.5 sacks. Kevin Williams, along with Fred Evans and Letroy Guion, have kept the middle solid throughout the season. Jasper Brinkley is starting to dominate at the middle linebacker. Harrison Smith and Antoine Winfield pound would be runners and receivers, and the cornerbacks have been better than any in recent memory. A total team defense.
Even Blair Walsh deserves credit. All he has done is set team and NFL records with nine consecutive field goals of 50+ yards. He is 32 of 35 on the year in field goal attempts. His kick-offs are pinning opponents deeper than in years past. He could very likely be an All-Pro is 2012.
And then there is Ponder.
Ponder lost favor by mid-season. Whether it was Bill Musgrave tightening the reins, or a lack of good decision-making, Christian stunk up the place for a while. And Minnesota lost games they had opportunities to win. Certainly the Washington loss, the Green Bay loss, and a few others drew pointed fingers at Ponder.
Despite a good game yesterday, most still feel he is not the quarterback of the future, and will be the demise of 2012. These fans want Minnesota to draft another quarterback next year, and open the door to potential free agent QBs or others out of favor with present teams. The list includes: Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez, Alex Smith, Philip Rivers, and more. Even Tarvaris Jackson would be an upgrade in the more pessimistic fan's eye.
But let's look at a few past drafts before we come to judgment...
2012 NFL Draft included a slew of apparent strong quarterbacks. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin headline a strong class. But would it surprise you to know that Luck's present passer rating is below Ponder? And other than the top two draft picks overall, only Russell Wilson (75th pick) is looking good. Miami's Tannehill (8th) and Cleveland's Weeden (22nd) have had mixed reviews.
The 2011 NFL Draft saw four quarterbacks chosen in the top twelve, six in the top thirty-six picks. Cam Newton, first overall, has been impressive. Jake Locker (8th) less so. Blaine Gabbert (10th) a disappointment. After Ponder, Andy Dalton was chosen 35th and Colin Kaepernick 36th. Both look better than Ponder to date.
In 2010, five QBs were draft in the first four rounds. The top pick was Sam Bradford, chosen 1st overall. Next was Tim Tebow, who went with the 25th pick. The remaining QBs include Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy, and some guy named Kafka. Only Bradford holds hope for a solid future.
In 2009 only three QBs are of note still today. Matthew Stafford, first overall, has been great and terrible. Mark Sanchez, fifth overall, is now washed up after his fourth season. And Josh Freeman (17th) continues to struggle with Tampa Bay. In this their fourth year, this class has taken a mighty step back.
2008 had of note Matt Ryan (3rd) and Joe Flacco (18th) and maybe Chad Henne (57th). Flacco has his detractors while Matt Ryan has proved himself year after year. The rest? Nothing.
So go ahead and hate on Ponder. Wish for another quarterback to take over. You may end up right, Christian might not be that good. But do not forget, Minnesota will not have a top ten pick. Probably not a top twenty. That means talent like Griffin, Luck, Newton, etc.. will not be available. We will have to find a Russell Wilson, or a Colin Kaepernick. In the meantime, most fans understand we still need to improve at other positions, such as wide receiver or offensive guard.
In the meantime, I will support Ponder as he beats Green Bay (along with AP and the defense), and brings us back to the playoffs in 2012.
Onward Christian Ponder. I will march off to war with you.
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